January is generally perceived as a cinematic dumping ground for studios, who can unleash their bothersome, lacklustre titles to little box office competition. Another common perception is that any movie which has been continually delayed is practically guaranteed to suck (though there are a few exceptions). It should be unsurprising, then, that Season of the Witch – a January 2011 release which was filmed in 2009 before undergoing reshoots and release date changes – is such a drab, Z-grade-level piece of cinematic garbage that happened to attract a few A-listers. Season of the Witch could have been an enjoyably campy medieval actioner (like a Roger Corman film) or a brilliant straight-faced period drama (like Black Death with Sean Bean), but it’s instead stuck in between; coming across as an incompetent, generally uninvolving supernatural fantasy-actioner burdened by bad creative decisions. With that said, though, it’s not a complete disaster – rather, it just remains wholly uninspired.
Disenchanted knights who fought in the Crusades, Behmen (Cage) and Felson (Perlman) desert the army upon suffering a crisis of conscience over the shedding of innocent blood. Returning home, the men happen upon a kingdom overwhelmed by the Black Death, whereupon they’re forced into service by the local cardinal (Lee) to escort an accused witch (Foy) to Severac where the monks can decide her fate. It is suspected that this witch is responsible for the plague, and her death may cause its ravages to cease. Behmen and Felson face imprisonment and death if they deny the assignment, and thus agree in exchange for a pardon. The pair soon hit the road, accompanied by a monk (Moore), an aspiring warrior (Sheehan) and an alleged con artist (Graham). However, as the motley crew traverse the hostile hinterlands, curiosity is piqued about their prisoner and the true extent of her powers.
The dull events that ensue blatantly defy logic. For instance, a protagonist is attacked by a wolf but only suffers a few minor scratches. And the plague is highly contagious, yet the characters don’t catch it despite frequently making contact with infected bodies. These characters are even so dumb that they do not shackle their prisoner, giving her ideal leeway to escape on foot.
Beneath its dreary surface, there is evidence that Season of the Witch‘s writer (Bragi F. Schut) wanted to explore a few deep, provocative concepts, but the attempts are half-hearted and underdone. For instance, the idea is introduced that knights did not realise the corruption which surrounded the Crusades, but it ends up getting little thought. Meanwhile, only sound bites are included to set up the idea that the church has shed a lot of innocent blood. Another potentially intriguing idea relates to whether or not the accused witch is innocent, yet the mystery is not fleshed out enough. See, Season of the Witch has no time for thoughtfulness in amidst its drab narrative machinations and repetitive bloodshed that culminates with a final act bordering on self-parody.
Season of the Witch was directed by Dominic Sena, whose last filmic endeavour was the woefully flat 2009 actioner Whiteout. Sena has shown the ability to enliven material (see Swordfish), but he was clearly on autopilot here; hampered by lack of budget, awful digital effects, a flat screenplay, and a cinematographer who should not be allowed to work in the industry again. Outside of the obvious green screen work, Season of the Witch was filmed on location in Austria and Hungary, but these gorgeous locales were wasted thanks to the bleak, dimly-lit, nauseating cinematography; a calamitous mishmash of shaky-cam nonsense and terrible lighting. While a fair amount of action is sprinkled throughout the film, it is often impossible to enjoy. On top of this, the film wears its docile PG-13 rating on its sleeve, as shots of blood are barely comprehensible due to how dark they are. The production values are admittedly competent and the film is spontaneously enjoyable, but there is not enough here to entirely redeem the film, or persuade one to recommend the film in good conscience.
In terms of acting, Ron Perlman seems to be the only cast member having fun. In fact, it would not have looked out of place if Perlman was seen chomping on a cigar now and again. Supplying a few nice one-liners and at least a bit of charm, it’s a damn shame that Perlman wasn’t selected for the lead role, because Nic Cage is incredibly wooden and lifeless as Behmen. Cage made no visible effort to be convincing in the role of a 14th Century English crusader – he did not even attempt the proper accent (though that’s probably for the best). None of the other cast members deserve considerable mention, though Christopher Lee does appear oh-so-briefly under a layer of make-up so thick that you can’t recognise him. It’s as if Lee did not want to be recognised. Go figure.
The fact that Season of the Witch runs a mere 90 minutes is both a blessing and a curse. On the curse side, the short runtime could not facilitate proper characterisation and motivation, and plot points and themes are incredibly underdone. On the blessing side, a 90-minute torture session is much more preferable than a torture session running two hours or more… So, yeah, Season of the Witch is utter tosh. The pacing is too sluggish, the tension is too scattershot, and the dialogue is too clunky and laughable. It’s constantly at odds with itself, trying to find the delicate balance between seriousness and schlock when it should have committed to one or the other.
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